After Snaring Li Keqiang, Aussie Football Club Targets Chinese Fans

  • Australian Rules Football club says it can boost trade ties
  • Chinese sport is predicted to reach $724 billion by 2025

Looping a team scarf around Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s neck at a football game in Sydney in March wasn’t just a smart marketing ploy. For an Australian Rules club, it could portend one of the sport’s biggest coups.

Port Adelaide, a team hailing from a working-class suburb of Australia’s fifth-largest city, is now trying to leverage off the trade and diplomatic ties cemented during Li’s five-day visit by making a play for Chinese fans. In Shanghai on Sunday, it will take on the Gold Coast Suns in front of a sell-out crowd in the sport’s first premiership match to be held in Asia.

Li Keqiang and Malcolm Turnbull prior to a Port Adelaide Power match in Sydney.

Photographer: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

While Australian Rules, a physically rigorous game combining elements of rugby and basketball, is the nation’s favorite spectator sport, it’s struggled to gain traction overseas. Port Adelaide Football Club Chairman David Koch aims to change that by convincing Chinese executives that they can make business connections through the club.

There’s also the fact that China’s sports industry is forecast to be worth 5 trillion yuan ($724 billion) by 2025.

Finding a Niche

“We wanted to find a niche where we didn’t have to compete against the 17 other Australian Football League clubs,” said Koch, an Adelaide-born former finance journalist who co-hosts a popular morning-television show in Sydney. “By doing this, doors have been opened to us that we never even considered possible.”

Still, the potential for Chinese support is unknown, said Guy Port, the Asia-Pacific head of commercial for consultants Nielsen Sports.

“The club has taken a big step to try to grow interest and awareness,” Port said. “Everyone will be really interested to take a look in six to 12 months’ time on the impact it’s made.”

Koch, who became chairman of the 146-year-old club when it was close to bankruptcy in 2012, said he initially found little support for his idea to seek financial salvation from China. The strategy began four years ago with business lunches for Australian expatriates in Hong Kong and Shanghai with former players.

David Koch.

Photographer: Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

It later grew with sponsorship of an Australian Rules league in southern China, as well as the national team which plays in a biennial competition against other countries.

An early breakthrough came in 2015, when Koch lured a group of Chinese businessmen to a game in Adelaide, the state capital of South Australia. One of the attendees was Shanghai CRED Real Estate Stock Co. founder and billionaire Gui Guojie, who enjoyed the sport and supported hosting a match in his home city.

Gui, a member of the communist party, subsequently became a major sponsor of Port Adelaide through Shanghai CRED. His company partnered with Australia’s richest person, iron ore magnate Gina Rinehart, last year to buy a minority stake in S. Kidman & Co., an iconic cattle rancher whose properties span about 1.3 percent of Australia’s total land area. Shanghai CRED was part of an earlier Chinese-led bid that was rebuffed by the Australian government on the grounds of “national interests.”

Another boost came last year, when state broadcaster CCTV started televising Port Adelaide matches. Initially attracting only 500,000 viewers, by the end of 2016, audience figures had swelled to as many as 3 million.

Most-Watched Game?

Koch said he predicts that Sunday’s match in front of 10,500 spectators will be viewed by as many as 20 million -- making it by far the most-watched game of Australian Rules football played.

A Port Adelaide training session in Shanghai.

Photographer: Kane Chenoweth/Port Adelaide Football Club

“I am sure there will be fans of this great sport in China,” Li said at the game in Sydney in March, Fox Sports reported. The Chinese Premier was adorned with scarfs in the black, white and teal colors of Port Adelaide as well as the red and white of their opponents, the Sydney Swans, supported by Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The value of the television broadcasts in China can’t be underplayed, according to Nielsen Sports. FC Internazionale and AC Milan are among the top three most popular soccer clubs in China, largely because Italy’s Serie A was the first European league to broadcast in the nation.

There are “significant commercial opportunities” at stake, Port said.

“For Chinese companies that are expanding outside of mainland China into Australia and the Pacific, the ability to relate and communicate through AFL is obvious,” he said. “It allows relations to be developed through Chinese companies operating in Australia and for another connection with the Australian government and trade.”

Pre-match news conference.

Photographer: Kane Chenoweth/ Port Adelaide Football Club

Right now, Port Adelaide’s management is focusing on Sunday’s game and how it can build a support base in China.

“The key financial metric is to build revenue streams not tied to on-field performance, which can be volatile,” Koch said. “It’s about respect, a willingness to understand cultural differences, and showing you’re here for the long term, not just as a flash-in-the-pan money grab.”

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